Yesterday Briar and I spent some time in the garden. She stomped around a bit and watched passers-by through the gate, and I read Marjory Fleming by Oriel Malet. We were both disappointed when the light began to fade, the temperature began to drop and we had to come back into the house.
Marjory Fleming is a fictionalised biography, a form which often worries me. But this book didn’t worry me at all: I was sure from the start that it was going to be wonderful.
Well first there was the subject. Marjory Fleming died in 1811 when she was just eight years old. But she left behind journals and poems that were preserved and published years later to great acclaim.
And then there was the author. Oriel Malet’s own first novel was published when she was just seventeen, and so she seemed better qualified than most to write about such a bookish precocious child. And I read Marraine, her memoir of her godmother, the actress Yvonne Arnaud last year and fell in love. The observation, the perception, the sheer love in that book was a joy.
And Marjory Fleming, a small, quiet book, is a joy too.
Not because Marjory is an appealing child, but because Oriel Malet brings her to life so beautifully, with such empathy and understanding.
First she introduces her home and family in such beautiful descriptive prose, and then the three year-old Marjory, hiding from her sister, not wanting to come in from the garden. The garden sounded so lovely that I quite understood Marjory. But I felt for her sister too when she was sent to bring in the truculent little girl.
There are so many details on every page. All beautiful and creating a picture both lovely and utterly real. And such an emotional journey. Marjory learns to read.
“Marjory climbed out of bed and tiptoed across the room to look closer. There were no pictures, and confronted with the black and white symmetry of the print, which was small and close, and peppered with curly S’s, she felt a definite sense of frustration. Why couldn’t she read, when she wanted to so much?
She flicked over the pages in desperation. The light fell on the title page. There, in big, black letters, was a whole row of words. Looking at them, Marjory suddenly found that they said “The Mouse, and Other Tales,” and were no longer just a jumble of letters. Even while she stood a little bewildered, in front of her own small miracle, a door slammed somewhere downstairs, and voices floated up from below. Closing the book, she scampered back to bed, and almost at once fell fast asleep.
Next day, when she awoke, the first thing that Marjory remembered was that she could read. She had made out “The Mouse and Other Tales” all by herself. For a moment she lay breathless before this discovery.”
So simple, but it made my heart beat a little faster, as a whole new world opened up to Marjory.
And I shared her nervous anticipation when her cousins came to visit, her happiness as a bond developed between her and her seventeen year-old cousin Isabella.
“Isabella Keith, gay, clever, so young, so sure, was pleased with her cousin. She was just grown up, and still had a joy in the unusual; she was not afraid of it as her elders were. She saw at once in Marjory a fine mind, and was wise enough to treat the child with respect, not as an inferior being. Marjory, sensing approval, opened her heart even wider. She came running to Isa whenever she could.”
It’s not entirely clear why at the age of five Marjory leaves her home in Kircaldy to live with her cousins in Edinburgh. And Marjory isn’t concerned with the hows and whys. She is happy and astounded. And Isa’s mother and sister are confounded. Is Marjory a changeling, they wonder. It seems entirely possible.
It is in Edinburgh that Isa gives Marjory her first journal, and encourages her to write.
“She went away laughing, and Marjory was left gazing at the blank pages of her first journal. Not for long. A moment later she was well away, firmly clutching the pen which sphuttered and scratched cheerfully across Isa’s carefully ruled lines. The room was very still. Only the clock ticked, and the canaries chirped and hopped in their cages. Occasionally a carriage rumbled by in the street outside. The child sat still too, lost in a deep concentration that no-one, save Isa perhaps, had known existed. Her hand moved the pen fiercely, with effort, for it would make squiggles and blots that she never intended, her tongue stuck out with concentration, as she scratched away. She was rapt. There was a look of satisfaction on her face, and now, for ever afterwards, she would pick up a pen whenever her thoughts struggled for expression.”
But enough! I’m not here to tell the story. I’m here to praise the book.
Oriel Malet creates a child – a bright child, but a child nonetheless – so beautifully, with such empathy, with such understanding that you really can see what she is seeing, feel what she is feeling.
The quality of the bigger picture is just as high. Every detail that makes up a child’s life – people, places, events – in such lovely descriptive prose.
This really was the perfect book for a light spring evening.
And now I find that I have two writers to cherish.
Extracts from Marjory’s journals and verses are reproduced, both in the text and in appendices, and they are quite charming.
And my second encounter with Oriel Malet has me longing to read every word she ever wrote. Sadly, all of her novels are out of print, and so I should be very grateful if somebody would reissue them.